THE WINTER GAMES

Fear of Flying

A tragic ski-racing death casts a pall over a sport that celebrates not just winning but bravery

JAMES DEACON February 14 1994
THE WINTER GAMES

Fear of Flying

A tragic ski-racing death casts a pall over a sport that celebrates not just winning but bravery

JAMES DEACON February 14 1994

Fear of Flying

THE WINTER GAMES

A tragic ski-racing death casts a pall over a sport that celebrates not just winning but bravery

JAMES DEACON

Kerrin Lee-Gartner knows that the starting gate of a downhill ski race is no place for second thoughts. From that mountaintop perch, racers must stare down their fears to be able to ski the most direct—and dangerous—line down the mountain. But the Jan. 29 death of Austrian star Ulrike Maier made Lee-Gartner, among others, take stock. The 26-year-old Maier, a medal contender for the Winter Olympics, broke her neck in a horrifying crash at a women’s downhill race in GarmischPartenkirchen, Germany. The seering image of her friend’s violent end cut through LeeGartner’s protective veneer of invincibility, and she dropped out of last weekend’s races in Spain to seek refuge with her parents in Tsawwassen, B.C. “I have always accepted the dangers of the sport and knew there was a possibility of hurting a knee or a limb,” she explained, adding: “I don’t want to stand in the gate unless I am 100 per cent.”

There is some irony in Lee-Gartner’s

abrupt departure from the circuit. She was one of many skiers who successfully lobbied to have the Feb. 19 women’s Olympic downhill moved from its original site at Hafjell to the faster men’s course at Kvitfjell. “Hafjell set women’s skiing back 30 years,” she said. Lee-Gartner’s preference for tough courses matches that of most Canadian skiers dating back to the Crazy Canucks of the late 1970s.

The downhill was the premier Canadian event and, although both national ski teams compete in slalom and giant slalom, it is in the speed races—downhill and super giant slalom— that Canadians are expected to excel in Norway. Even after the tragedy. “It is difficult to

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ignore something like what happened to Ulli Maier,” says downhiller V Ralf Socher, 26, of Fernie, ' B.C. “But at the same time,

I can’t pretend I am in a sport that is padded and protected. We take risks.”

The Maier tragedy is likely to focus even more attention on the electrifying men’s and women’s Olym| pic downhills. Skiers will 5 reach speeds of more than S 130 km/h on the icy course § that knifes precipitously off I the face of Kvitfjell Mountain, 50 km north of Lillehammer. Winners become Olympic monarchs whose daring and bravery are celebrated for years afterward. Jean-Claude Killy of France. Franz Klammer of Austria. Michela Figini of Switzerland.

And Lee-Gartner of Canada. If she skis the downhill at Kvitfjell—she says she will decide after the Olympic super G event on Feb. 15— she would team with Kate Pace to give Canada a downhill dream team. Lee-Gartner, 27, who now lives in Calgary with her husband and coach, Max Gartner, would be defending the Olympic downhill title that she won two years ago in Albertville. Pace, who is from North Bay, Ont., is the reigning world champion. Together, they lead a team that includes Vancouver’s Michelle Ruthven, 26, and Mélanie Turgeon, 17, of Quebec City. Displaying a talent for understatement, Pace said: “We are not a powerhouse team by any means, but we have some great skiers.”

Had the venue stayed at Hafjell, Pace would be the runaway favorite. The circuit’s best glider, she won the Olympic tune-up held there late last season. But she does not expect to be hampered by the Kvitfjell course. At the suggestion of downhill coach Don Lyon, Pace undertook a rigorous off-season weight-training program to improve her ability to carry speed through the hard turns of technical courses. “She is probably 15 to 20 per cent stronger this year,” Lyon marvels.

Lyon claims that Pace, who turns 25 next week, is the most focused skier on the circuit. She plans each training session and plays back each course in her mind—especially the

Olympic run in Norway. “My imagery skills are really powerful,” says Pace, who entered the 1993-1994 World Cup season as one of the topranked downhillers in the world. “I saw myself winning the world championships [in Morioka, Japan] two years before it happened. I know this sounds cocky, but when I got through the finish line and saw that I was in first place, I honestly didn’t expect to see anything else.”

With Germany’s Katja Seizinger, Pace is rated a co-favorite for gold in the downhill. She has scored three victories and two third-place finishes in her last eight World Cup races. Success has raised her profile—she now does TV commercials for IBM, and her usual Christmas break with her family in North Bay (her father is an obstetrician, her mother a homemaker) was interrupted

by reporters. The attention, however, has not gone to her head, thanks to the teasing from her nine brothers and sisters. “People have asked if I got more respect from my family after winning the world championship,” she says. “They obviously have not been part of a big family.”

As Pace has soared, Lee-Gartner has slumped. She began the season rated third on the downhill circuit, but never seemed to get going. “Kerrin did a lot of technical training in the off-season and she missed out on some speed training,” Lyon says. “Plus, the conditions in December were so bad that she didn’t get many training runs in.” Anxious for results, Lee-Gartner began to press. “For the first time since the Olympics, I began to feel the weight of that gold medal. I was thinking that I had to get better, which is crazy because I had already shown that my best was good enough.” But a third-place finish in the super G race at Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, two weeks ago appeared to have restored her confidence—at least until Maier’s tragic accident.

The men will be the first to test themselves at Kvitfjell on Feb. 13. Albertans Cary Mullen, 24, and Edi Podivinsky, 23, and the other not-socrazy Canucks have been overshadowed by the women’s team in recent years. But late last season, Mullen finished seventh at the world championship downhill in Japan, won back-toback races (downhill and super G) at the U.S. championships and then finished fourth at the Whistler, B.C., World Cup downhill. Then veteran Rob Boyd, 28, of Whistler recorded two fourthplace finishes early this season before injuring a knee that may keep him out of the Olympics. And last December Podivinsky, Mullen and Socher finished first, second and fifth, respectively, at a downhill in Saalbach, Austria. Quietly, the Canadian team has accrued more World Cup downhill points than any other country except Austria. “Saalbach was the hard evidence of the team’s progress,” says head coach Glenn Thompsen. “That just told the guys that they had arrived. It gave them confidence—it still does.”

The men will need that confidence to go up against the § Olympic favorites—Marc Girardelli of Luxembourg, Patrick Ortlieb of Austria and Norwegian star Atle Skaardal. But according to Crazy Canuckturned-broadcaster Ken Read, the Canadian men could learn something about preparation from their female teammates. Read and his teammates coped with big-event pressure by treating the Olympics like any other race—a philosophy that still prevails among the men. But the Canadian women’s team has traditionally focused on the big races and prepared accordingly. That approach has paid off for the women: over the years, they have won four Olympic gold medals and six world championships. And on the icy slopes of Norway, it just might pay off again.

JAMES DEACON